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John Nguyen
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Struggling to Improvise

I kind of let this blog fall off the wayside (like most people) but it turns out that there are actual people that read it! I should continue to update it for my large readership.

I still struggle to improvise. Actually, I suck at it. My brain can’t keep up with such fast chord changes, nor can my fingers work out where I am quickly enough either. Noodling on the blues scale is boring, and scale tones just sound too safe.

Lately I’ve been relearning Billie’s Bounce. Its a blues tune, with some jazzification. You’ve got a couple ii V7 Is, and neat substitutions (Bb7 -> B half diminished 7 -> F7). I’ve been learning the solos from Charlie Parker’s performance. My teacher has been helping me to break it down and actually use the solos in my own playing.

The trick is not to transcribe solos and memorise them. Its better to work out what’s actually going on thematically or harmonically, in tiny chunks. I’ll attempt to go through some in this post.


Here are some little licks from Charlie Parker’s first chorus.

This is just a jump up to the tonic.

T: Jump
|: z4 z3 c,1 | f,8 :|

Straight after we have a chromatic approach to the 9th.

T: Chromatic Approach
|: f,2 g,_a, a,_b,b,c:|

This is a surround using the altered scale (maybe?). Actually I think it is the textbook surround. You have a scale tone above, semitone below surround around Bb.

T: Surround
|: z a, (3 _Bc_b, Af, z2:|

That’s a triplet up there, but the ABCjs rendering engine has failed me. Pull requests welcome!


When a chord functions as a V7 chord, pretend its a 7b9 chord. You can then use the diminished arpeggio on any note of that chord (except the tonic)! Amazing really. Nice cheat for when you’re falling behind.

I aim to use this liberally in Billie’s Bounce chord 7 to 9. Where it moves from Am7 to D7 to Gmin7. When you hit the D7 just jam out on the diminished arppeggio built off Eb.


Broken down, these are all very simple! Together they make an amazing solo, but there’s nothing crazy going on here.

The true jazz master brings all of these together with groove and swing to make an amazing solo. But for us average people? We have a tangible concept with which to build our skills. Each of the ideas above can be drilled separately and then brought together.

My brain can handle this. Maybe.

See you next time!